short story by Caroline Wong | translation by Dalih Sembiring | original Indonesian can be read here
In the coolness of dawn, Mamak would appear in her kitchen. She would stand before the old wooden table covered with a clean, sleek plastic sheet that glistens under the incandescent gleam.
Under the majesty of the first light, she would knead her all-purpose flour dough balls to make pieces of fry bread, which I’d later be selling by the entrance gate of the nearest school. The crackling sound of dough pieces sliding into hot oil is sign that I have to get up quickly and get ready. As Mamak always says: “Go bring ‘em while they’re piping hot!”
“A Ming, don’t forget! One hundred rupiahs are for two loaves of fry bread, so one loaf means fifty rupiahs only!” Mamak’s shrieks can be heard from far inside the house just as I turn around to exit the front door. I have the green plastic basket in my right hand, carrying dozens of hot pieces of fry bread that give off the sweet scent of coconut oil. I have to tilt slightly to the right — it’s heavy.
“Yes, Mak! You tell me that every day!” I reply with a grumble. Mamak always underestimates my math skills, while I’ve actually gotten really good at it. Every afternoon, our neighbor Mas Yono teaches me how to count and read.
Mustering gallantry into my steps, I now step out of the door. “Mak, I’m off!”
“A Ming! Remember! Five loaves of fry bread are the same as two hundred and fifty rupiahs!” Mamak howls on about the same thing from where she is. I can’t help but growl fretfully before closing the door. O Mamak… Clearly I am that big of a nitwit to you.
I sit under the tree closest to the school gate. I begin to count skillfully. If all the pieces of fry bread get sold, surely Mamak won’t mind setting aside a hundred rupiahs to put into my rooster-shaped, ceramic penny bank.
My neighbor A Cung, who lives in the alley, has a plastic soccer ball. He would never lend it to me. Every time I asked to join in a game of ball, A Cung would turn me down. He said that I was too short and too frail, that I would trip over with just one tackling. One time, amid his laughter, A Cung called me a “bench boy”.
I chuckle at the thought of having my own soccer ball. I already asked about the price at the toy store opposite the alley. Five hundred rupiahs. Just wait until this bench boy brings his own soccer ball! I’ll show it to them, Marco van Basten style!
Twelve loaves to go! I once again place the clean, red-checkered covering cloth over the basket. Mamak always says: Pay attention to cleanliness when you’re selling something. Have respect for your customers; don’t let the food catch any dust.
The gate is now closed, and Pak Bujang has rung the school bell. Classes have begun. I have to leave here quickly. I get up, and I can feel the clump of coins heavy in my pocket. See, I never miscalculate! Do not underestimate A Ming alias Mintono!
The rest of the loaves usually get sold out on my way home. There’d be calls by random women along the streets, or the cycle rickshaw drivers might call me over.
I’ve been walking quite a distance when a group of big kids in white-and-gray uniforms suddenly appear in front of me. These high schoolers must have jumped over one of the school’s sidewalls to skip class.
I can already feel my foot kicking the new ball in A Cung’s direction. These pieces of bread are going to be finished now for sure. And then I can go back to Mamak and refill the basket up with loaves of piping hot fry bread. Second batch! Heh heh…
The most macho-looking of them looks like Ryan Hidayat, with his shirt unbuttoned to his chest and that air of grooviness. He opens the basket and puts the covering cloth aside. “Dig in! Boss is paying!”
I let out the biggest smile. All gone! The only thing that remains at the bottom of the basket is a piece of torn newspaper. I can even see what those shiny big, black letters on the front page say: Mike Tyson DESTROYED by James ‘Buster’ Douglas in 10th Round!
“Twelve loaves of bread time fifty rupiahs; that would be six hundred rupiahs.” I give my biggest and friendliest smile to the boss.
He slips a one-thousand-rupiah note onto my palm. I stare with amazement at how blue it is. Time to do a quick mental count; Mas Yono’s serious face appears in my mind. “Four hundred rupiahs in change.” So I reach into my pocket — one that Mamak sewed specially for me. It’s so deep, the money from the business is always safe inside. The boss extends his arm once again to touch me gently on my shoulder. “Keep the change, lil’ bro.” He smiles generously.
I’m stunned, speechless, and probably about to cry too. “Thank you, brother,” I let the words come out faintly. I carefully put the folded note into the pocket without delay.
The boss and his friends wave at me as they walk away with their mouths still chewing Mamak’s delicious fry bread. I’m still standing in my spot. An extra four hundred rupiahs, plus one hundred rupiahs from Mamak as a commission pay. That’s equal to the real soccer ball of my dream!
I run home with a spring in my steps. On Mamak’s kitchen table, I proudly present the empty basket and all the money I have made today. The one-thousand-rupiah note gets the limelight. I also let her know that I am entitled to the change. Mamak blissfully smiles as she unfolds that note. But her face instantly changes into a deathly pale… Tears of bluish glimmer begin to roll down her cheeks.
“A Ming, this note is torn in half…”
“Mamak” is one of many Indonesian terms meaning “mother”.